Are you tired of being home? Trapped under a pile of wrapping paper and empty eggnog cups? Go to the Will Rogers Memorial Museum; it’s open today. Yes, today! On Christmas! Hours are 8a – 5p. Adult admission is $5, seniors and military are $4, and kids 17 and under are absolutely FREE. There is a new exhibit at the Museum called “The Final Journey,” chronicling that fateful day in Barrow, Alaska. At this year’s Will Rogers Days, 95-year-old David Greist, who was there for the aftermath of the crash, came to Claremore to tell his story. It’s fascinating. Here it is:
In 1935, Barrow, Alaska, was a remote area. What happened on August 15 that year was “something that had never happened at Barrow before,” said David Greist, who remembers the crash that was heard around the world, the one that claimed the lives of Will Rogers and Wiley Post.
Now 95, Greist was at Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore during Will Rogers Days to help dedicate the grand opening of The Final Journey, the relocated gallery of the final days of Will Rogers and Wiley Post. Will Rogers Days are celebrated annual surrounding November 4, the date of Will’s birth in 1879 on an Indian Territory ranch.
Greist shared stories of that day in 1935 and his parents’ role in preparing the bodies of Will and Wiley for their return to California. He also told of taking his homemade canoe and following rescue workers to the crash site for removal of the bodies for the trip back to Barrow.
Greist is likely the only person living today who could tell first-hand those experiences. His parents were medical missionaries, his father a doctor, his mother a nurse.
They lovingly prepared the bodies, and Mrs. Greist tucked a note to Mrs. Rogers in Will’s pocket. They made sure “Col. Lindbergh’s orders were followed that the bodies not be released to anyone but Joe Crosson,” Greist said. He said there were others who tried to claim the bodies.
The Griests were familiar with Col. Lindbergh. He had been there in 1931 and was a guest of his parents several days, while waiting for a fuel shipment caught in the ice. He went to church on Sunday and discovered the boxes they were sitting on were “cracker boxes” from a mistaken order of 200 cases of crackers.
“He gave my father a check for $200 to buy chairs for the church,” he said, laughing.
He shared his boyhood experiences, such as getting stranded in a blinding snow storm with his dog team, and the lead dog taking the “right” turn to get them back home after three days in the cold and camping out in an igloo.
Greist said the crash when Will and Wiley perished was a “shock to the whole Barrow community,” and especially to his parents. They were in charge of an eight-bed hospital, the farthest north hospital in that part of the world. He said it was about 700 miles to the next closest doctor — in Anchorage.
He told of the motor launch picking its way through floating ice from Walicpaw, the lagoon where Wiley had set his plane down before taking off on what would be the final leg of their journey.
With a photo of the crash scene as a backdrop in the Museum theatre, he named all the men in the photo and pointed to the fence posts on a place used to corral for the annual reindeer count — and to his canoe.
Just two years old when his family went to Alaska, he said he saw his “first white child when he was seven or eight.” When he was ready for high school — and as he shared, “when at 15 I fell in love with the whaling station-trading post owners’ daughter,” he was sent to boarding school in Long Island, N.Y., but was home for summers.
It was primitive times when he was in Barrow. “First class mail came four times a year, parcel post only once. Groceries were shipped in August.”
He knew Clare Okpeaha, who witnessed the crash and ran to Barrow for help, only as an older Eskimo who “didn’t speak much English … My father used interpreters at church and at the hospital,” he said.
He remembers the bodies of Will and Wiley arriving late at night. It was summer, he said, and there was still a lot of daylight left when, with the help of two white men, they arrived at the hospital. “There were only 12 white people in the village of 300 Eskimos and 800 dogs. Everyone (including the young Greist) had a dog team.”
He said the crash forced the airplane engine backward and crushed both men. His mother retrieved watches from their pockets. Will’s watches are among his personal items in The Final Journey gallery.
Another historic moment from Will Rogers Days 2013 was the presentation of a pontoon cap, which Greist rescued from the crashed plane, for display in The Final Journey.
The presentation was a few years in the making. Retired commercial pilot Calvin Pitts, who repeated Wiley’s 1931 “around the world” trip in 1981 in a little more than eight days, discovered Greist living in Florida.
Greist gave Pitts the pontoon cap, who said after visiting Will Rogers Memorial Museum and meeting and working with Steve Gragert, Museum director, he “knew the Museum was where it belonged.”
He made arrangements for Greist and his wife, Rose, to come to Claremore for Will Rogers days and to be here for The Final Journey opening.
Pitts has made a lifelong passion and work of Wiley; and now especially that final journey including Will Rogers.
About David Greist:
He planned to attend college and become a surgeon like his father. But fate dealt him another hand. He joined the Army Air Corps in 1942 and spent a career in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel, then had a career as a teacher. He has lived all over the world, but has been in Orlando, Florida, for many years.